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Why the Four Horsemen Says Playing with GI Joes Is Time Well Spent

Daniel Dennett doesn’t believe in The Force. In fact, Dennett, like Han Solo, doesn’t believe in any sort of “hokey religion.”

Dennett is an atheist, part of a movement that calls themselves the “Four Horsemen.” Dennett and his colleagues study the mind, intentionally trying to decouple it from religious thought.

Interestingly, Dennett has done research on the effects of playing with toys and being the old Grognard I am, that sets my mind thinking about 80s Star Wars, GI Joe, MASK, and He-Man action figures.

Well, this got weird fast. I mean, this article went straight from religious thought to waxing philosophical about GI Joe toys. Yet while it might seem like some steps are missing, I promise I’ll get there. But before we go any further, let’s acknowledge the most befuddling philosophical conundrum of them all, which is fandom itself.

Don’t try to understand fandom. It lies beyond the realm of analytic comprehension. Asking why some adults compulsively horde with religious fervor every GI Joe action figure released with an O-Ring is tantamount to asking why the universe exists. It just does. And they just do.

I should know: I have boxes full of GI Joes.

Instead, simply accept the fact that fandom is illogical and let’s lean into it. With this mindset, it’s pretty easy to mash up religious thought and GI Joe toys.

While our culture dismisses our use of the imagination as wasted time, mystics throughout history have told us that the imagination is a conduit into reality, not away from it. So while many assume that imagination distracts us from the real world and proper responsibility, many believe that imagination can open our minds.

In the 16th century, St. Ignatius of Loyola designed the training manual of the Jesuits, in which adherents were to deeply imagine themselves partaking in incidents from the life of Jesus, creating internal and personal “virtual realities” as a means of coming closer to God. Ignatius thought that deeply imagining themselves walking along with Jesus would help them to live a life well lived in the real world. This was simply building on the work of Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates.

Sixty-five years later, the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila wrote a prayer manual called The Interior Castle, but you could easily say she wrote a “Player’s Handbook.” The Interior Castle described Ávila’s path to God as a kind of single-player game of D&D. She described the soul as a crystal globe, containing seven mansions to represent seven stages of deepening faith.

Throughout the book, she warned that this imaginary internal world will be constantly assaulted by reptilian “toads, vipers, and other venomous creatures,” representing the dangers to a soul that must be vanquished. Teresa of Ávila was totally a real-life cleric, y’all.

Similar techniques exist in many world religions, like the inner visualizations of Buddhism, for example. Those mystics and more speak to the importance of imagination, speaking of the vital importance of daydreaming and fantasy, and in their cases, imagination as literally the door to divinity.

Dennett observed that something equally interesting happens when we play with toys. Sure, action figures are physical objects but they don’t have minds, obvi. But what if action figures actually had plans of their own?

Dennett calls this the “intentional stance.” Think of it this way: when you play with Snake-Eyes, you don’t just plop a piece of plastic down on the table. No, you recreate scenes and absolutely make whooshing ninja sounds and you make him kick and slice like a Real American Hero.

But what if some smart alec Dreadnok corrects Snake-Eyes, letting him know that ninja lore has, um, actually been romanticized throughout time. Would Storm Shadow then step in and knock that smart Alec upside the head with a nunchuck?

In other words, playing with action figures helps us to think about what someone else would think, even if that someone else began as Cobra before turning to GI Joe. Imaginative play helps us to think about others intentions, making our decisions based upon the beliefs of our characters and the situations we’ve set up for them.

Now, deciding what an action figure will do is different than predicting what a real person will do in similar circumstances, so Dennett would warn us about wrongly projecting intentions onto inanimate objects.

Yet, we do it all the time. Chevys, starships, and the USS Flagg don’t respond to begging, yet anyone who has driven a clunker has at some point begged their car to start, much like Han Solo begged the Falcon to hold together. Or what nerd hasn’t wished upon a dice roll?

Sure, these are superstitious beliefs. Lightning doesn’t strike because Zeus is angry. But just like Teresa of Ávila or St. Ignatius of Loyola hoped for us, we can use our imagination to picture the best behavior for ourselves, thereby taking a baby step towards being more pure in our intentions. This is why I love to listen in on my girls playing with my Marvel Legends superhero action figures. They pretend to be heroes and my heart swells for them.

Fake it until you make it, in other words. Imagine you are a Jedi, committed to the Light Side of the Force. Or maybe you are a GI Joe filled with honor and a commitment to service.

Like many nerds, I spent my introverted childhood in my mind, reading, writing, and playing with action figures. Tolkienesque fantasy, Claremontian prose, and yes, tiny plastic GI Joes cut straight across my Western-thinking subconscious, allowing me to become a hero against the evil forces of Cobra Commander. I embarked on missions to battle the bad guys and in my imagination the good guys always prevailed.

And although our culture dismisses our use of the imagination as wasted time that distracts us from the real world and proper responsibility, I encourage you to pick up a Joe or grab the character sheet for your Paladin.

Imaginative play is not the same thing as making positive, constructive life choices but now we know that practice can make perfect. And knowing is half the battle.